Death and the King’s Horseman, one of Soyinka’s tragedies, presents a representation of the Yoruba worldview. In Yoruba cosmology, there are three worlds: the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world of the unborn. This play focuses on what connects all three worlds—transition, the pathway on which members of the different worlds meet and interact.
The opening of the play involves the ritual ceremonies for the burial of a dead king. Elesin, the king’s horseman, attired in glorious robes, enters the village marketplace in a majestic dance procession, followed by praise-singers and drummers. Elesin dances until he is in a trance, a state of transition. He performs poetry and song about the world of the ancestors and the connectedness of the three worlds.
The purpose of this ceremony is to help the dead king travel peacefully to the world of the dead. It should conclude with the suicide of Elesin, whose soul will accompany the king’s. Elesin sees a beautiful woman in the crowd and demands one night of love with her before he dies. Iyaloja, the mother of the marketplace, reluctantly agrees.
Also in the village is the British colonial district officer, Pilking. He is well-meaning but unable to understand or respect the Yoruban people. He also performs a dance at a gathering of his own people—a mocking imitation of an African dance in captured regalia. When Pilking hears of Elesin’s intention to die, he has him arrested to prevent it.
Soyinka makes it clear in his preface that this is not a mere clash of cultures; this is not simply a case of the white colonialist interfering with native culture. Elesin has failed to perform his duty, and his failure has cosmic significance. The white officer is a catalyst, but he cannot otherwise affect the village. The cosmic world is untouched by colonialism and materialism.
Elesin’s son Olunde, a doctor, returns from England. He has heard of the king’s death and assumes that his father’s death is near. Olunde reveres native culture and has had wide experience of Western culture. He tries unsuccessfully to make Pilking understand Yoruban belief. Ashamed to see his father’s failure, he kills himself in Elesin’s place.
When Elesin sees his son’s body, he takes his own life. This suicide is the result of shame, however, not duty, and it cannot repair the bonds that have been broken. The young bride, pregnant from her one night with Elesin, appears. She ritually closes her husband’s eyes as Iyaloja says, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”